Friday, August 07, 2015

Disinterested, evidence based policy decisions and emotional needs for action

I find myself worrying about the chasm between the way policy should be made and the bases of policy support by the public.

An example in the Bush administration's war decisions. 9/11 was a shock widely shared by the American public. The public after 9/11 would support almost any action to get back at the terrorists who planned the action. The Bush administration, as far as we can tell, made the right decision that Al Qaeda was responsible, and supported those in revolt against the Taliban in Afghanistan on the basis that the Taliban was sheltering Al Qaeda leadership. With the Taliban overthrown, the Al Qaeda leadership was in danger from American retaliation in the east of Afghanistan.

At that point, the Bush administration appears to have misused its intelligence assets and used spurious analysis to argue that Iraqi political leaders had also supported Al Qaeda, were implicated in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, and had stock piles of weapons of mass destruction; all of these charges eventually proved false. However, the public and the Congress, still emotionally driven by anger after the 9/11 attacks, approved of a war on Iraq to be conducted in parallel with the action in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden got away in Afghanistan, the U.S. quickly conquered the Iraqi army and eliminated Baath party members from the Iraqi government and military, and then chose to embark on long and costly military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

More American lives were lost in the Iraq and Afghanistan war efforts than were lost in the Twin Towers, thousands more Americans were wounded and/or disabled, and huge numbers spent years of their lives in the war zones away from families and friends. The casualties among Iraqis and Afghans dwarf the America casualties. The cost of the wars have still to be fully counted, but appear to be more than a trillion dollars. Perhaps most important, a large region of the world -- never too stable to begin with -- is now far less stable than it might have been.

My guess is that the Bush administration did not do due diligence in thinking through the causes of 9/11, nor the alternatives available to it, nor the effects of the actions it chose. However, those actions were easy to sell to the American public at the time that they were taken because the public was acting on the basis of emotion and not reason.

Policy should, I believe, be based on a reasoned judgement as to what is best for the nation. Emotional response to current events on the part of the policy makers tends to get in the way of good policy decision making. The public is more prone to emotional response to riveting events, especially those driven home by vivid media coverage, but public intellectuals should strive to keep a dispassionate, evidence based assessment of the situation before the public. Walter Cronkite, the most trusted newsman in America in his time, did yeoman work of that kind anchoring the news around Viet Nam and the Kennedy Assassination.

Good policy making involves drawing on people who have knowledge about the issues and peoples to be affected, and in situations such as planning wars in Iraq and Afghanistan requires reaching out to people outside of the normal framework; there were people in the USA, and indeed in government, who had expert knowledge about these countries, but they were not in the cabinet or the cadre of political appointees in the State Department, Defense Department, nor the Treasury Department. Good policy making would seem to require the president and his key advisers to be able to rise above their emotional responses to immediate events in order to look carefully at evidence and dispassionately consider alternative scenarios and their probabilities. It requires being able to consult with leaders of allies and consider carefully the views of leaders of other countries.

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